Lebron v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation
The decision extended the First Amendment to corporations created by, and under the control of, the government in the case of an artist who argued successfully that Amtrak had been wrong to reject his billboard display because of its political message. The First Amendment bars only governments and instruments of government from infringing upon the freedom of speech. Private persons and corporations generally are free to regulate speech in whatever ways that they wish. The Court's holding that Amtrak is a part of government extends First Amendment protections to federally created corporations. The Supreme Court indicated that it might not extend these protections to other federally created corporations that are not as closely affiliated with and controlled by the government.
American concern about inefficiency in government dates back to the First Continental Congress. In over 200 years since the First Congress, reorganization has taken place, but the fundamental structure of government departments has changed little. However, their jurisdiction has grown. The Reinventing Government program of Vice President Al Gore is only the latest in a series of plans to reinvigorate the federal government.
Petitioner, Michael A. Lebron, created a billboard display that involved commentary on public issues. In August of 1991, he contacted Transportation Displays Incorporated (TDI), which managed the leasing of the billboards in Amtrak's Pennsylvania Station in New York City. He sought to display an advertisement on a large billboard known to New Yorkers as "the Spectacular." The Spectacular was a curved, illuminated billboard, approximately 103 feet long and 10 feet high. It dominated the main entrance to Penn Station's waiting room and ticket area.
On 30 November 1992, Lebron signed a contract with Transportation Displays Incorporated to display an advertisement on the Spectacular for two months beginning in January of 1993. The contract provided that all advertising was subject to approval of Transportation Displays Incorporated and Amtrak as to character, text, illustration, design and operation. Lebron declined to disclose the specific content of his advertisement throughout his negotiations with Transportation Displays Incorporated, but explained that it was political.
On 2 December 1992, he submitted to Transportation Displays Incorporated and Amtrak an advertisement. The advertisement was described by the district court
The work is a photomontage, accompanied by considerable text. Taking off on a widely circulated Coors beer advertisement which proclaims Coors to be the `Right Beer,' Lebron's piece is captioned `Is it the Right's Beer Now?' It includes photographic images of convivial drinkers of Coors beer, juxtaposed with a Nicaraguan village scene in which peasants are menaced by a can of Coors that hurtles towards them, leaving behind a trail of fire, as if it were a missile. The accompanying text, appearing on either end of the montage, criticizes the Coors family for its support of right wing causes, particularly the contras in Nicaragua. Again taking off on Coors' advertising which uses the slogan of `Silver Bullet' for its beer cans, the text proclaims that Coors is `The Silver Bullet that aims The Far Right's political agenda at the heart of America.'
Amtrak did not approve the advertisement. Amtrak's policy was not to allow political advertising on the Spectacular Billboard. Lebron filed suit against Amtrak and Transportation Displays Incorporated. He claimed that refusal to place his advertisement on the Spectacular billboard had violated his First and Fifth Amendment rights. The district court ruled that Amtrak, because of its close ties to the federal government, was a government entity for First Amendment purposes. Rejection of Lebron's proposed advertisement violated the First Amendment. The district court granted Lebron an injunction and ordered Amtrak and Transportation Displays Incorporated to display Lebron's advertisement on the Spectacular.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the decision. The court noted that Amtrak was, by the terms of the legislation that created it, not a government entity. It concluded that the federal government was not so involved with Amtrak that the latter's decisions could be considered federal action. The U.S. Supreme Court then issued a writ of certiorari, a written order commanding a lower court to forward the proceedings of a case for review, and took on the case.
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